Orwellian Equality

two women, one traditionally dressed, the othre in modern clothes
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/adam_jones/3774290540/">Adam Jones</a>

Acts 10:34-43

 Then Peter told them:

“Now I get it. God doesn’t count some people as if they were better than others. Wherever you come from, if you do what’s right, you’re OK with God. You know, by sending Jesus, God sent the Israelis a message of peace. But Jesus is the same message to everyone. Starting in Galilee with John’s announcement that God had sent Jesus with a different powerful spirit, it spread through Judea. Then he went all over the place doing good and healing everyone who the devil had ground down. God was with him, and we are witnesses to what he did in Judea and Jerusalem. They executed him, hung him on a tree. But three days later God raised him up, and made it obvious, certainly not to everyone, but to us, whom God had chosen to see it, and we ate and drank with him after he’d risen. He ordered us to tell everyone that he’s the one God has appointed to judge everyone, whether living or dead. All the truth-tellers say that whoever embraces him is forgiven all their wrongdoing because of him.”

The message of Jesus is, at it’s heart, peace. At the core of that peace is the kind of “doing right” that embraces a radical equality.

Peter’s speech is set at the first meeting between the Israeli contingent of Jesus followers and the first followers of other races and religions. Each of these groups considered themselves “better” than the other. Each had a long history of hostility against the other. The question is, how will they become a community together.

Peter’s answer to that question is given in retelling the Jesus story, ending with Jesus as the cosmic judge over “the living and the dead.” Already, in this retelling of the Jesus story a generation after Jesus, the emphasis has moved from Jesus’ treatment of all people as equal to Jesus enforcing the principle of equality as a divine judge. The motive has moved from emulation from inner conviction to conformity to the requirements of an external divine judge.

Furthermore, we see that the exercise of the divine judgment is becoming located more definitively in the say-so of the apostles, who claim a special, more personal connection with Jesus. Ironically, this speech attempts to enforce the practice of equality in the community by establishing a special better class of people.

The treatment of certain people as equal in God’s sight may be a new revelation to Peter, but at least as he plays it out in this speech, he still hasn’t really “got it.” He’s still stuck in the Orwellian bind of some people being more equal than others.

A High Degree of Correspondence

Man and woman
Image credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/serendipitys/3436932007/">Benedetta Anghileri</a>

Genesis 2:15-25

God put the earthling in God’s garden to take care of it and cultivate it. God gave the earthling instructions: “You’re free to eat anything on any of the trees, except the tree of moral discernment. If you eat from that tree, you’ll die.”

Then God said, “It’s not good for the earthling to be alone. I’ll make him a helper to be his partner.” So God molded from earth all kinds of animals and birds, and brought them to the earthling to see what he would call them. The earthling gave them all names, deciding what to call all the domesticated animals, wild animals, and birds. Still, none of them was suitable enough of a helper to be called a partner. So God anesthetized the earthling and took one of his ribs, closing over the skin. God made the earthling’s rib into a partner, and presented her to the earthling, who said,

“This, at last, is my very bone and flesh.
I’ll call her woman, because she corresponds to man”

So, ever since, a man leaves his parents to be attached to his wife. Both of them share the same essence, together naked, without shame.

It should go without saying, but unfortunately it doesn’t.

This is about partnership and equality, not domination and hierarchy. The point isn’t that woman is a derivative or essentially different. The point is that she is correspondent and essentially the same.

In its entirety, the story is about the human need for community. The earthling cannot exist alone in a vacuum. “No man is an island,” as John Donne put it. We cannot thrive in isolation.

Genesis recognizes that partnership, collegiality, equality, and community are divine gifts. Even more so when that partnership and community leads to the formation of intimate, life-affirming connections between people.

What About the Virgins?

Madonna: Like a Virgin album jacket, 19841 Corinthians 7:25-26

With regard to independent women, God hasn’t told me anything, but I’ll tell you what my opinion is (and you know my opinions are nearly always right). I think that, since we’re so close to the end of the world, you shouldn’t pressure anybody to get married.

[Credit: What follows is derived from some radical monastic characters I know of second hand, and who would probably be excommunicated if they said it themselves in public.]

If you comb through the writings of the early church fathers you will find a peculiar expression crop up here and there: “widows who are virgins.” It’s such an awkward expression that it sometimes gets mistranslated “widows and virgins,” or some such thing. But there it is. Could there really be that many sexless marriages out there that the first generation church would have had to deal with a whole class of people who are “widows who are virgins”?

Here’s an eye-opener. It’s well documented that the in that provincial Roman society being a woman nearly always required being attached to a man, whether by attachment to a father or brother, or to a husband. When a woman’s husband died, she either returned to a father or a brother, or got remarried. It’s just what you did. Otherwise, you were a kind of societal pariah. Women-as-independent-people was an unthinkable concept.

And yet, as a result of Jesus example, the first-generation church somehow got the idea that women were people too. Imagine! But if women are people, too, on their own, apart from the person-hood of whatever man they were attached to, what do you do about this whole new class of people? What do you even call them in a society that doesn’t have a word for such a person. What about the widow (who certainly has had marital relations) who is now independent, her own person, and who has not gone back to live with her father or brother?

Or could it be that the early church was so egalitarian in its view of women that they had to come up with a word for that class of person? Could it be that they picked a readily available word for a virtuous woman (parthenos) and applied it to this new class of virtuous Jesus-following women? Could it be that’s who the early church fathers were writing about when they had to deal with all these “widows who are virgins”?

What’s a church to do with all these “loose virgins?” Do you make them get married? Paul says, no. What’s the use in conforming the practice to the world’s practice? The old system, where women aren’t really people, sucks. And besides, the whole thing is slated for demolition? Don’t conform! Don’t pressure them to get married!

Too bad that kind of egalitarian practice only lasted a generation. But, hey, it’s not too late to start treating women like real people in the church again now!

[Bonus thought – get ready to have your mind blown: When Luke writes the Christmas story, 30 years after Paul has already written to the Corinthians about what to do about the independent women, and other early church writers had already been talking about “widows who are virgins,” what do you think he really means when he says that Mary was a young “virgin” betrothed to a man named Joseph? Luke’s use of the word has nothing to do with Mary’s sexual status. What he means is that she was her own person. And of course Joseph “knew her not before she had borne a son.” Having sex with a pregnant woman was taboo, and Joseph was “a righteous dude.”]